This week Roma Downey, the Derry-born actress most famous for her highly successful 10-year stint in the CBS series Touched by an Angel, is launching a new animated DVD for children called Little Angels.
It’s an exciting new project for Downey, who for the last 18 months has been the executive producer of the new series created exclusively for preschool-aged children to teach them their ABCs, numbers, animals and along the way impart some time-honored family values through well known Bible stories.
It’s part of Downey’s longtime commitment to produce programs that uplift and inspire, she says.
“The characters are little angles who live on the ceiling of the nursery of four year old twins Alex and Zoe,” Downey tells the Irish Voice. “Each day the little angles come to life and serve as mentors and guides to the kids. They encourage them to be kind, cooperate and share, what we might call old-fashioned family values.”
Downey, who is married to mega reality show producer Mark Burnett (Survivor, The Voice, The Apprentice), is speaking to the Irish Voice from her ocean view home in the upscale neighborhood of Paradise Cove in Malibu, California. It's a world away from her modest origins in Beachwood Avenue in Derry.
“It’s lovely here today,” she confesses. “I’m getting text from my family in Derry all week saying that they’re frozen in the cold snap that’s hit, and I here I am in shorts and flip flops. I’m always a bit reluctant to share that with them.”
Downey readily admits that Paradise Cove deserves its name.
“I’ve always been drawn to the water. I do like to be near it,” she says.
“And maybe that’s from growing up and knowing Donegal. I’ve always done my best thinking near water. I think it’s because we’re island people. As I’m speaking to you I’m looking out at the blue of the Pacific. There’s something very calming to it.” Downey is a graduate of Thornhill, the most famous girls school in Derry, and she still recalls those days with laughter and affection.
“I’m a Thornhill survivor. I was there from when I was 11 until I was 18. My entire Derry education was with the Sisters of Mercy, or as we called them, the Sisters of No Mercy,” she says.
Her Derry accent is clear as a bell too, completely undiminished by her decades in the limelight and life in the U.S. And her enjoyment of the many memories she brought to the U.S. from Derry is remarkable.
“As I recall, one of the running themes used to be if there were no bad girls there would be no bad boys. That was the height of our sex education at Thornhill,” recalls Downey.
“But I actually loved the place and I have great and happy memories of it. I was just back in Derry this summer with my 15-year-old daughter Reilly. As well as visiting family I did have a night out with the half a dozen of my old Thornhill girls. I still keep in touch with them. We went out for a few drinks and a few laughs.
“I have such fondness for those times. My daughter will be 16 this summer and to get to share that with her has been great.”
Like all Derry people, Donegal is Downey’s natural hinterland and the site of countless magical holidays.
“We used to escape to Buncrana in the car if we were lucky on a Sunday afternoon. Honestly all the photos of us in Buncrana, I laugh so hard at them now, we’re always pictured on the beach there, and we’re all wrapped up with huge sweaters on,” she laughs.
“This is in August. The height of summer. With that wind always coming down Lough Swilly and Lough Foyle. And here I am today on the beach in Malibu.”
It was the early passing of her parents that made leaving home that bit easier to branch out as a young woman. Downey's mother tragically passed when she was just 10, and her father passed when she was attending college. Some people might have been derailed by the dual misfortunes, but somehow she found the strength to move on.
“I haven’t lived in Ireland since I was a girl,” she confesses. “When I graduated from Thornhill I went to college. My mother had died when I was 10 and when I was in college in London my father passed away. So the wee house that I grew up in on Beechwood Avenue in Derry was sold.”
Downey hasn't lived in Ireland since. For years whenever she'd visit she became Auntie Roma in the spare room.
“I returned in the decade after that filled with tremendous homesickness. But eventually I figured out that the longing was really for the past, for a time that was no more, you know?”
You can still hear the cost of that time in her voice. “Losing a parent shapes you and you grow up around the loss,” she confides. “I felt that my mammy’s death really created a hole inside of me and the woman I became. And I just adapted to living with it.